Lord George Robertson - No Oban to Islay Ferry

It's nice to write again about the ferries and ports on Islay. A subject that I like very much and it's something that is generating a lot of newsworthy articles and concerns everyone, both the people on Islay and its visitors. It has been silent for a while so let's recapitulate what's been going on with Islay's ferries and ports. In a nutshell: Islay will see a new ferry in 2011 and so far she doesn't fit Kennacraig, Port Askaig and Port Ellen's link span. Port Askaig, which has recently undergone a £13m reconstruction, will need more work on the linkspan which will cost another £0.5m. Kennacraig and Port Ellen need a huge upgrade of around £38m. With that in mind there is a ferry review and information leaked out that there is a possibility that Islay will be served by a Oban to Port Askaig single ferry route and no longer from Kennacraig which means exit Port Ellen AND Kennacraig and £38m are saved. A silly proposal which should be stopped immediately but with the huge financial gaps left by the economic crisis the government will try and save lots of money and closing both Port Ellen and Kennacraig for Calmac ferries and not invest there is an easy win. There is lots of opposition against the single port option and perhaps you'll remember the ferry route poll I ran in December last year amongst the readers of this blog. A huge majority, 106 people, want to travel to Islay from Kennacraig to either Port Askaig and Port Ellen and only a few, 15 people, prefer Oban. Lord George Robertson, former Secretay General of Nato and Ileach, is against the possible changes too and he wrote a letter to First Minister Alex Salmond which was printed in last weeks Ileach: Continue reading.....

Lord George Robertson: Dear Minister, I have just returned for Islay where I was born and have a house. I write to you about disturbing speculation which is circulating about the future of Port Ellen, the island’s principle ferry port and the village where I was born. There are two ferry ports on Islay for good reason. One, Port Askaig, has just been modernised at huge, and over-budget, cost. It is however vulnerable to bad weather, especially at high tide. That is why Port Ellen is not an expensive duplication, but an essential reserve harbouring when Port Askaig is compromised. The ferry business is absolutely pivotal to Port Ellen’s economy and to that of the south eastern part of the island. So, why should I be writing to you?

First, because there is a leak from the ongoing ferry review that consideration is being given to running the Islay service from Oban to Port Askaig - making Oban the port hub for much of the west of Scotland. This idea is fanciful. It is dramatically longer in distance and time than the existing routes and allowing the whole service, including the lucrative whisky traffic, to be dependent on travelling to Oban combined with the longer journey would be outrageous. Would you confirm that any such suggestion has been firmly ruled out?

Second, to move to a one port solution on Islay would be to deal a death blow to Port Ellen and that part of the island. The apprehension that Port Ellen is to be abandoned is fuelled by the fact that extensive work is required at Port Ellen pier and there is no sign that this has been approved, never mind commenced. The cost has not even been published. The existing pier will not be able to accommodate the new Islay ferry being built in Poland at the moment - and the work to allow this has not yet started. Moreover, it has now been admitted that the new ferry will not fit either Port Ellen, Kennacraig or Port Askaig piers. How it can be that a ferry can be specifically ordered for a specific route and yet be designed such that it will not fit the existing link-spans? If you care to visit, or have someone visit, and have a look at the brand new link-span on the brand new Port Askaig pier you can see that there is only about 3 feet of clearance on the existing link-span for the existing smaller ferries. The public are being told that the work required to accommodate the much bigger new ferry will be simple and reasonable in price. Like you, I am not a structural engineer, but even a child conversant with a Lego set can see that the work required will be extensive and expensive.

I repeat, how can any organisation order a new ferry at a cost of £20m and not design it to fit a new, I repeat NEW, link-span at the main ferry port? You have always claimed to be an open and transparent politician, and been regularly critical of those who have withheld public interest information from the public, so will you tell me the following: Will you veto the possibility of going to one Islay ferry port? Will you also see off the ludicrous possibility of serving Islay from Oban? Is it true that the new ferry will not fit the existing piers at Kennacraig, Port Askaig and Port Ellen? Will you ensure that sufficient funds are available to make the up-gradings a reality soon? As I said in my book of photographs which you and Moira praised on our way to New York, Port Ellen has a rich and proud history, producing two Presidents of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the inventor of the whaleback ship which opened up the trade on the American/Canadian Great Lakes, and General Alexander MacDougall - hero of the American War of Independence and the first Chairman of the Bank of New York. To attack its whole economic base when its port is so necessary would be an unforgivable act of betrayal. I’m sure that you would not want that on your administration’s record. I very much look forward to your reply.

George Roberston,

This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.

Tag: ferry travel calmac transport port ellen port askaig kennacraig cmal